File photo: British pound notes.

London - A teaching assistant has been handed a staggering £800 000 (about R11 million) in compensation after she tripped and dislocated a finger at work.

The payout - one of the highest ever awarded in education - was made after Julie Anne Huddart tripped over the waist strap of an empty wheelchair while trying to move it.

Mrs Huddart, 49, dislocated a finger and injured her elbow in the 2003 accident, and has since been diagnosed with “reflex sympathetic dystrophy” - a malfunction of the nervous system that causes pain and swelling.

The married teaching assistant, from Chorley, Lancashire, began a nine-year battle against her local authority for compensation, and earlier in 2012 Lancashire County Council agreed to pay £800 000 in damages and £140 000 in legal costs in an out-of-court settlement.

The award, which sparked fury among war veterans and victims of crime who received substantially less for their injuries, is part of a burgeoning compensation culture among teachers who in 2011 claimed a record £25 million following accidents and employment disputes. Recent payouts include £200 000 for slipping on a grape and £173 595 for dislocating an ankle during playground duty.

A teacher who preferred to take small classes was handed £250 000 after being put in front of a full class, including disruptive pupils, which caused a recurrence of a nervous breakdown.

Yet classroom unions which helped secure the payouts have been vocal in their attacks on spiralling compensation claims from parents who resort to lawyers when their children fall in the playground or have accidents on school trips.

Lancashire council leader Geoff Driver said on Wednesday the award was a “sad reflection on the litigious society we have become”.

Jill Walmsley, the mother of a teenager who was stabbed 35 times and left for dead in a frenzied unprovoked attack in 2010, condemned the payout.

Jessica Knight, now 16, suffered injuries so severe she suffered a stroke and was in a coma for weeks. But the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority - which can offer victims up to £250 000 - awarded her just £18 895. The family appealed and received a larger payout, but it was still “substantially” less than the award to Mrs Huddart.

Ms Walmsley, from Chorley, Lancashire, said: “Jess didn’t even get a quarter of that sum. It is unbelievable, astronomical. Something that can change your life forever gets a measly sum. A trip and dislocated finger is not going to stop someone from living their life.”

War hero Dave Watson, who lost both legs and his right arm in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, added: “It is bad because we are going out there and our lives can change just like that. It is unfair - we are doing a more dangerous job.”

Mrs Huddart’s payout was one of 12 to school staff in Lancashire alone in 2011, costing taxpayers more than £1.3 million. Other payments included £42 000 to a teacher who pushed a door which did not open, resulting in concussion and an arm injury. The council also had to pay £26 713 in costs.

Figures from the three main classroom unions show they secured £25 million in compensation for members in 2011. Most of the cash was paid out following employment disputes, but there were also significant personal injury payouts, including £158 000 for slipping on mud during a fire drill.

Many cases never reached court but were settled using “compromise agreements” - legal agreements to accept compensation rather than pursue a tribunal claim.

Employment payouts included £33 000 to a teacher who was fired for gross misconduct amid allegations she falsified test results, albeit in optional tests. The school “failed to provide any evidence the member’s actions had been deliberate”.

In another case, a teacher with serious criminal convictions dating back 20 years - before she started teaching - was fired after the local council discovered the offences. A tribunal awarded her £35 500.

The growing payouts culture is thought to be partly driven by schools and local authorities settling out of court to minimise their losses, sometimes without properly investigating the claims. And the size and number of payouts have prompted accusations of double standards after unions criticised litigious parents.

In the past, the NASUWT union has lamented that “society no longer appears to accept the concept of a genuine accident” and condemned the “rise of the blame culture”.

It is believed Mrs Huddart has been unable to work since the accident. She lives with husband Aled and two children from a previous marriage in a £200 000 semi-detached home in a residential estate.

Lancashire County Council said the cost to the authority was £100 000 - the rest was covered by its employer’s liability insurance.

Mr Driver added: “We contested this case but liability was decided by the courts.

“It is a sad reflection on the litigious society we have become. There seems to be no such thing as an accident any more; everything is argued to be someone’s fault.”

Jonathan Isaby, of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Every penny spent on settling these claims means less money spent on educating children.” - Daily Mail